What Does Organic Really Mean?

The USDA has a very specific legal definition of what you need to have in order to call a food “organic.” While it does require minimalizing pollutants, pesticides, and “off-farm” products, the existence of some pollutant “residues” is permitted. Organic animal products must be free of antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic crops must not have “fertilizers with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation.” The food must be free of “most” conventional pesticides, and the farm must be inspected by a Government-approved certifier.

There is no such thing as a free-range egg. At least, there is no regulatory agency overseeing such a practice. As for free-range poultry for meat, only one access point to an outdoor pen of unregulated size is required, no matter how large the indoor factory. Cows, sheep and pigs fare a little better: in order to be free-range they must be grass fed and live on a range. However the size of the range per animal is not regulated.

Studies show that organic foods are generally higher in nutrients then their conventional counterparts. For example, a report from The Organic Center, The University of Florida Department of Horticulture, and Washington State University showed that organic foods contain, on average, 25 percent higher concentrations of 11 nutrients. Additionally, a study by Truman State University showed that organic oranges had twice as much vitamin C as their larger conventional counterparts.

On the other hand, organics are more expensive than conventionally farmed items. Generally, costs associated with organic farming are higher, resulting in an “organic premium” for the consumer. One joint study by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell University, The Rodale Institute, Department of agriculture and Resource Economics, University of Maryland and USDA Agricultural Resource Service examined the environmental and economic issues of organic farming. Analysis showed that organic farming needed 35% more labor on average. Organic feed is consistently more expensive, and machinery costs are increased for organics. All things considered, the average organic premium required to equalize returns was only 10% above the cost of conventional crops. However, premiums seen in retail outlets consistently exceed this, ranging from 65%-140%.

Because organics cost more, they are a luxury. Many people cannot afford organics, so conventional farming is still the way that the world’s hungry are fed. Until the cost of organics equalizes with conventional farming, it will remain a choice for health conscious people with disposable income.

Additional Resources

USDA Organic Production/Organic Foods: http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/ofp/ofp.shtml

Organic Trade Association: http://www.ota.com/organic/benefits/nutrition.html

Organic and Conventional Farming Systems Environmental and Economic Issues: http://ecommons.cornell.edu/bitstream/1813/2101/1/pimentel_report_05-1.pdf

Compassion Over Killing How Free is “Free-Range”? http://www.cok.net/lit/freerange.php

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